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‘Actions speak louder than words’: Rhetoric and nuclear policy realities

By Jooeun Kim, nuclear security predoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford

On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump frequently said that the United States would be “better off” if countries such as South Korea and Japan had their own nuclear weapons to guard against a North Korean strike.

But this belief goes against the bipartisan national-security consensus that the U.S. government has maintained for 70 years since the Truman administration — and which has provided regional stability and helped prevent a nuclear arms race in Asia. The recent North Korean launch of four medium-range ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan on March 6 adds increasing urgency to the situation.

Above all, despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the policy reality ahead is that the U.S. must be viewed by its Asian allies as a dependable nuclear and military power that can help them during a crisis. If so, countries like Japan and South Korea will see no need to build their own nuclear weapons.

Let’s consider the historical context. When the United Kingdom and France stepped out from under the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the early days of the Cold War, even these developments were not desirable in the eyes of their patron ally. The greater the number of nuclear states, the higher the risk of nuclear war by miscalculation or accident. This alone is enough of a reason for countries like the United States — which strongly advocates non-proliferation policies — to avoid the further expansion of nuclear arsenals throughout the world.

A nuclear country such as the U.S. has additional reasons for not wanting allies under its nuclear umbrella in Asia to develop their own nuclear weapons capability. Above all, such a development would lead to a loss of influence for the U.S., in this case. Once the non-nuclear ally becomes independent in the nuclear sphere, the nuclear-capable ally would no longer have leverage over its ally’s foreign and defense policies. This would result in a reduction of the superpower’s influence regionally and globally.

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With policy advisors better versed in nuclear history and alliance management who are in the government, we may not see an immediate reversal of decades-long policies on nuclear nonproliferation and military alliances from President Trump.

While President Trump understands — if not exaggerates — the costs of having dozens of allies around the world, it seems he does not recognize the benefits of maintaining global alliance networks. His statements come from the perception that the return on investment from the U.S. nuclear umbrella is too small. His statements are radical, yet such cost-benefit analysis is familiar. While Trump is unique in his unusual encouragement of nuclear proliferation among allies, the issue of burden-sharing with allies is not new.

The Nixon Doctrine, set forth in 1969, encouraged the military self-reliance of U.S. allies. Nixon also withdrew 20,000 troops from South Korea. Furthermore, in the 1976 election, then-candidate Jimmy Carter pledged to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of South Korea.

Yet, these actions did not lead South Korea, or any other ally, to build nuclear weapons.

It is true that during the mid-1970s, South Korea did launch a furtive effort to develop its own nuclear deterrent. However, evidence suggests that this effort was not only in response to Nixon and Pacific. Rather, South Korean President Park Chung-Hee questioned the credibility of the United States because of President Nixon’s exit from Vietnam and the perceived abandonment of its ally, Saigon. As a result, South Korea expected a future conflict with North Korea, and through the experience of South Vietnam, determined that it too could be abandoned by Washington when most in need.

Trump’s remarks on the campaign have stirred some concerns in Seoul and Tokyo about the commitment of the United States, particularly since it comes as North Korea continues to expand its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities. While alarming to some allies, Trump’s campaign rhetoric is not enough to alter the status quo of the nuclear policies of allies. It is the actions of the United States during crisis situations that really matter and influence the nuclear policies of allies.

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Of course, Washington needs to indicate that it will maintain a strong military alliance network in East Asia and Europe, even during peacetime. However, the credibility of U.S. alliances that can ultimately tip the status quo of allies’ nuclear policies is revealed during crisis situations when allies are in need of support. The United States needs to show that it has strong interests in preserving the security of allies and that it has the resolve to stand by them in crises.

There is an East Asian proverb that “a soft answer turns away wrath,” but as the English proverb notes, “actions speak louder than words.” As long as the Trump administration provides support to allies when they are in need, his rhetoric from the campaign trail can be forgotten amid the policy realities of the international order.